Unions and guilds have been around in one form or another since before Jesus Christ was born. If you work at a job with a 40-hour work week, paid overtime, your weekends off and employer provided health care, you have unions to thank for that.
Unions were formed to protect workers from unfair labor practices by corporations. As we have already read in this series so far, the balance between comic book creator and comic book company leans too far in the direction of the comic book companies. With comic book creators getting the shaft for decades, you would figure that the those creators would try to form a union.
They did. Almost 45 years ago, the biggest creators of the day, and many newcomers who would shape the face of comics for decades to come, gathered to try and form a “Comic Creators Guild.”
The impetus was a change in the copyright laws that took affect on January 1st, 1978. While most people nowadays focus the law change for what it says about copyright expiration, it also changed the rules for copyright transfer in works made for hire. It required something in writing that specifically documented what rights the creators were turn over.
This sent comic book companies into a panic. The companies were fairly laissez-faire when it came to the transfer of rights. For the most part, their policy was that if you cashed a check for the stories you handed in, you transferred the rights as well. Some comic book companies stamped a boiler plate agreement on the back of their checks saying as much. Some didn’t.
In response to the new law, Marvel sent out a one page contract to all of their creators. Seen to the left, the contract states that any work contract from the creators, called “suppliers” was work made for hire and that by signing the document the “supplier” was signing away all rights forever to the characters and concepts they created to Marvel.
This caught the ire of Neal Adams. Adams was a legend at the time for his work for DC and Marvel in the 1960’s but was primarily working outside of comics at the time. However, he owned the Continuity Associates art studio, and members of that studios would provide art for many of the comics published by Marvel and DC. Adams was hot off helping Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster get their proper due from DC, so creator rights was fresh on his mind. He saw this as the right time to organized his fellow comic book creators into a guild.
“DON’T SIGN THIS CONTRACT!! YOU WILL BE SIGNING YOUR LIFE AWAY!!” read the top of the flyer Adams sent around. The words were written on the top of one of Marvel’s “work made for hire” contracts in black marker, a strong way to make a point. At the bottom was written “URGENT!! COMICS CONTRACT MEETING. SUNDAY MAY 7, 9 E. 48TH ST. THIRD FLOOR. 4 P:M.” The address was for the building Adams’ Continuity Associates was housed.
Gary Groth, co-founder of Fantagraphics Books and executive editor of The Comics Journal was at the May 7, 1978 meeting and reported about it in Comics Journal #42. Groth would devote 13 pages to the Guild, including a transcript of the meeting. He would also include a list of attendees at the meeting, which read like a who’s who of the comic book industry. The attendees included:
- John Albano: Was a “journeyman” writer who was working on numerous positions, but mainly writing, on DC Comic’s horror titles. He was the co-creator of Jonah Hex.
- Terry Austin: An inker who was inking Marshall Roger on Detective Comics. Was a member of Adams’ Continuity Associates. Would later go on to ink Uncanny X-Men.
- Mike Barr: Was primarily working behind the scenes, responding to letters and writing text pieces while sporadically writing stories that saw print. He would go on to become comic writer, working on Detective Comics and co-creating Batman and the Outsiders and Camelot 3000.
- Cary Bates: Writer best known for his work on DC’s Flash comic book.
- Rick Bryant: Was an inker at the very start of his career.
- Mike Catron: Was co-founder of Fantagraphics with Groth.
- Howard Chaykin: Was just coming off his work launching Marvel’s Star Wars comic book. Was a member of Adams’ Continuity Associates. Would go on to create one of the major works of Independent comics, American Flagg.
- Chris Claremont: Was in the early stages of his work with John Byrne on the Uncanny X-Men and was also writing Ms. Marvel and Power Man and Iron Fist at the time. .
- Tony DeZuniga: Inker on Savage Sword of Conan and Spider-Woman.
- Tony Dispoto: Editor and colorist. Not much found online about him.
- Steve Ditko: Co-Creator of Spider-Man, but at the time was plotting and providing the art for DC’s Shade, the Changing Man.
- Bob Downs: Inker who had just gotten his start at DC Comics
- Steve Englehart: Veteran writer who had just wrapped up a run on Detective Comics.
- Peter Gillis: Was at the beginning of his career. Would go on to write well received runs on Defenders, What If? and create Strikeforce: Morituri
- Chris Goldberg: Comic book colorist.
- Michael Golden: Artist who was working at DC and Marvel on titles such as Batman Family. Was only months away from his big break on Micronauts.
- Archie Goodwin: Was a writer and editor at Marvel. Was writing Marvel’s Star Wars adaptation at the time.
- Mike Hinge: Illustrator and graphic designer who used comic book influences in his work.
- Klaus Janson: Inker who was working on various Marvel titles at the time. Would soon be paired with Frank Miller and would earn fame on Daredevil and Batman: The Dark Knight Returns.
- Joe Juski: I can’t find anyone who ever worked in comics by that name. This might be a typo by Groth, and he meant to write “Joe Jusko“, a painter who was Howard Chaykin’s assistant around that time.
- Alan Kupperberg: Writer/artist/colorist/letterer who was working as a penciller at Marvel at the time.
- Paul Levitz: Was well into his seminal run on Legion of Super-Heroes, writing Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes as well as an editor on a number of DC books. Would eventually become DC Comic’s Executive Vice President.
- Rick Marschall: Writer/editor at Marvel at the time.
- Roger McKenzie: Writer who was working on Daredevil and Ghost Rider at the time.
- Bob McLeod: Was at the time the inker on Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes. Was a member of Adams’ Continuity Associates.
- Frank Miller: Had just broken into comics with stories in Western Publications and DC’s War comics. Would soon be assigned to Daredevil, the book that would make him famous.
- Mike Nasser: Later known as Michael Netzer, Nasser was a protege of Neal Adams. Nasser was working for DC Comics at the time.
- Marty Pasko: Was the then-current writer on Superman.
- Carl Potts: Was a member of Adams’ Continuity Associates. Worked as an artist on various DC publication. Eventually became an editor at Marvel.
- Ralph Reese: Was a member of Adams’ Continuity Associates at the time. Would go on to draw the Flash Gordon Comic strip.
- Marshall Rogers: Was the penciller on Detective Comics at the time.
- Joe Rubinstein: Inker. Was a member of Adams’ Continuity Associates.
- Jim Salicrup: Was an editor at Marvel at the time.
- Jim Sherman: Was at the time the penciller on Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes.
- Jim Shooter: Was at the time Marvel’s Editor-in-Chief.
- Walt Simonson: Was coming of his first stint on Thor.Was a member of Adams’ Continuity Associates. Would return to Thor as a writer and artist, bringing the character to heights it had never seen.
- Roger Slifer: Was writing Marvel Two-In-One at the time. Would later co-create the popular DC Comics character Lobo.
- Bob Smith: Inker working on Super Friends and Secret Society of Super-Villains at the time.
- Jim Starlin: Creator of Thanos. Was a member of Adams’ Continuity Associates. Was dividing his time between DC and Marvel at the time.
- Greg Theakston: Was a member of Adams’ Continuity Associates. Was working as a commercial illustrator at the time.
- Len Wein: Co-creator of Swamp Thing, Wolverine and the New X-Men.
- Alan Weiss: Was an illustrator who worked in various comics and magazines of the day.
- Bob Wiacek: Was a member of Adams’ Continuity Associates. Inker.
- Marv Wolfman: Writer and editor at Marvel. Was writing Amazing Spider-Man and Spider-Woman at the time. Would go on to co-create The New Teen Titans with George Perez.
While some names on the list have been lost to obscurity, most of the people at the meeting were the movers and shakers in the comic book industry. They represented, at the time, the comic book industry’s past, present and future. It was a group that would have been taken seriously.
The mission of the guild was laid out in a hand out. The guild was meant to be a joining together of creators in order to get equitable treatment from the comic book companies. How equitable? Well, the Guild recommended pages rates as follows: Artists get $300 per page ($1,256 adjusted for inflation(AFI). For comparison, in a 2016 poll, the max page rate for pencillers were $250 per page and inkers were $200 per page), writers get $100 per page ($418.72 AFI, max rate in 2016: $220), letterers get $40 per page ($167.49 AFI, max rate in 2016: $50) and colorists would get $70 per page ($293.10 AFI, max rate in 2016: $150 per page). The Guild also advised that the comic book companies could only buy the first publication rights of the creator’s work, with any further reprinting needing further payment. The companies would also need to return the creator’s work back to them in a timely fashion.
As for the meeting, reading the transcript, it could best be described as chaotic. Groth reports many instances of people talking over each other and going off onto tangents. Bones of contention were whether or not inker and colorists, who depend on pencillers for their work, and letterers, who depend on writers for their work, deserve the same kind of rights to their work as the writers and pencillers, how many books the companies really sell each month, and how secure the industry was.
Looking back at that meeting, it becomes obvious why the attempt at creating a guild failed. Be it arrogance or naivete, Adams plans were poorly thought out. He used a rumor that the comic book companies were willing to spend tens of thousands of dollars to buy the rights to the Tolkien books as a sign that comic book companies had loads of money to spend on their creators. History shows us that Marvel at the time only achieved financial stability by deciding to publish the aforementioned Star Wars adaptation. And DC Comics was a little over a month and a half away from the infamous “DC Implosion” where they culled their publishing line by 40% and laid off a number of employees.
Adams’ plan also relied on unity among the freelancer corps making comics. He mentions in the meeting about his intention to send out invitations to creators who produce a lot of content for Marvel and DC to join the Guild. He is stingy with the names but he does mention it would be creators like John and Sal Buscema, Curt Swan and Gene Colan. However, getting these creators to sign on wasn’t a sure thing. Colan is quoted in the issue as taking a “wait and see attitude” to the guild. “I’m associated with Marvel and they’ve treated me pretty decently and I don’t want to go off on a limb.” Colan says when asked for comment. “It’s a little risky at this point and I’m not going to make any waves.”
That was a major problem with Adam’s approach. He wanted the creators Marvel and DC would miss the most to join the Guild to show it was serious, but those creators, who didn’t have a lucrative side hustle like Adams and relied on comic book work to make a living, was not willing to join the Guild until it became more established.
The Comic Book Creators Guild fizzled out into obscurity, but it might have helped creators in the long run. DC Comics instilled its royalty program in November of 1981 and Marvel started one less than a month later. The system would give creators who worked on books that sold over 100,00 copies a percentage of the sales. Creators would be getting more money and, in the process, be less concerned with keeping the rights to their work.
Next time: An early challenge to the work for hire system arrives, and fight involves not one but two ducks.